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Doctors in Scotland Are Literally Prescribing Nature to Their Patients

PETER DOCKRILL
9 OCT 2018

It's October right now, so your doctor has prescribed that you step outside and appreciate a cloud.

Or maybe you could write a worry onto a stone and throw it into the sea. And then perhaps try to find 10 different species of fungus (hopefully outside your home, not in it).

 

All the above are suggestions from a new 'Nature Prescriptions' program being rolled out to GPs in Scotland's Shetland Islands this week.

After a successful pilot at a surgery in Scalloway, all of Shetland's doctors can now literally prescribe 'nature' to their patients as part of their overall treatment strategy.

The project, jointly run by NHS Shetland and RSPB Scotland, is thought to be the first of its kind in the UK, and those behind it expect the scheme to improve patients' blood pressure, reduce their risk of heart disease and strokes, plus give their happiness and mental health a boost.

"There is overwhelming evidence that nature has health benefits for body and mind," says RSPB community engagement officer Karen MacKelvie.

"So, we saw an opportunity to design a leaflet that helps doctors describe the health benefits of nature and provides plenty of local ideas to help doctors fire-up their patients' imaginations and get them outdoors."

When doctors sees a patient whose health could benefit from a nature prescription, they can give them the leaflet – which explains ways in which spending time in nature is good for the human body – along with a calendar that gives ideas about what to see and do in Shetland's great outdoors.

 

In January, for example, you may wish to look at lichen. In February, you could plant some bulbs in your garden. And in March, why not borrow a dog and take it for a walk? (Your neighbour will thank you.)

While the examples given are all delightfully twee, it's a serious scheme designed to deliver important health outcomes, helping people manage everything from diabetes to depression to cancer.

"I want to take part because the project provides a structured way for patients to access nature as part of a non-drug approach to health problems," explains GP Chloe Evans from Scalloway Health Centre, who oversaw the pilot program that led to this.

"The benefits to patients are that it is free, easily accessible, allows increased connection with surroundings which hopefully leads to improved physical and mental health for individuals."

The new rollout enables doctors from all 10 surgeries across Shetland to prescribe nature to their patients, but with time it's possible more areas and health boards in the UK will adopt the scheme.

Already, some are saying it's a good idea to think about.

 

"The physical and mental benefits of connecting with nature have been very well evidenced by numerous studies," Makena Lohr, a spokeswoman for the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare in Oxford, told The Guardian.

"It's high time that the healthcare sector became aware of that."

Those who don't live in Shetland don't have to miss out on the benefits, either.

While some of the suggestions on the Nature Prescriptions calendar are region-specific, lots of them could be done by people living anywhere.

So why not tend to some plants? Turn over a rock and see what's underneath. Go camping in the wild. Listen to some birdsong. Feel the wind in your face.

And then look back on your year and see how far you've come.